History never repeats exactly; there are always different nuances and circumstances. Our understanding of the past, on which we apply any equivalence, is distorted by the perspectives of our time. Reliance on historical analogy is therefore risky.
The crisis in Ukraine is a case in point. The analogy that this crisis proves that a new “Cold War” with Russia is underway is wrong. The Cold War was a particular period. It was an ideological contest over how societies should be organized. To the “winner,” it was felt, would go the right to impose its societal and economic system upon the world. The other system would disappear from history. With stakes this high, significant risks appeared, at the time at least, to be reasonable.
Vladimir Putin has no ambitions to dominate the world in the cause of an ideology. His actions are probably closer to the Great Power politics of Europe in the years leading up to World War 1, to the extent any historical analogy applies.
But if the Cold War is an analogy that should be approached skeptically, specific historical events may provide useful ideas. The Berlin crisis of 1948-49 may be a case in point, though we must always remember that events never repeat themselves exactly.
What would become of Germany was the critical issue of the immediate post-war years. In 1945 the Great Powers (the US, USSR, UK and France) occupied Germany but did not agree on the future of that country. In the meantime, they agreed that they would take no actions in their respective occupation zones that would impact the others.
Stalin was adamant that any post-war Germany should be firmly under Soviet control. The other allies were adamant that the industrial power of Germany should not be at the disposal of the USSR. There was thus a stalemate; none of the Powers wanted a Germany under the control of the other side, and Germany languished as they argued over what to do about it.
This suited Stalin – if he could not have the Germany he wanted, neither could the others. He was content to wait until the costs of occupation (the Occupying Powers were responsible for the survival of the German people in their zones) mounted to the point that the US, UK and France would give in. His occupation costs were minor, as the Soviets cared little for the German people in their zone, and Soviet troops were quite brutal towards them (especially the women).
As the costs of occupation mounted, the Americans realized that the only way to reduce them would be to stimulate economic activity in their zone so that Germans could support themselves. The Americans also realized that their larger goal of re-starting the European economy would only be achieved if the German economy, the engine of Europe, got going again.
The Americans, therefore, began to stimulate the economy in their zone. They agreed with the British to link the economies of their two zones (the French came along later, reluctantly) to create a larger economy of scale. Key to this was the introduction of a new currency that would be backed by the US and UK and could be traded across those zones. They also recognized that economic revival could not occur without the creation of local government, so steps were taken to create this in the US and UK zones.
Stalin saw threats. If the part of Germany not under his control was revived, and this happened according to the Western economic model (accompanied by the emergence of representative governments), that would be a disaster. Stalin also recognized that re-starting the European economy would affect Russia. The USSR did not have the economic resources to compete with the US in a contest over which economic system would prevail in Europe. The creation of a Liberal, free-market economy there, tied to the US, would be a serious blow to his desire to impose the Soviet model on the parts of Europe his troops did not already occupy.
Stalin needed to convince the people in the Western zones of Germany and also Europe that revival and development led by the US were dangerous. His advantage was in raw military strength. Unlike the US and others, the USSR had not disbanded its huge wartime army. Thus, Stalin decided to use his military strength to intimidate Germany and Europe.
His chosen place for the confrontation was Berlin, deep in the Soviet zone but also occupied in sectors. The US, UK and France had the right to traverse the Soviet occupation zone to reach their respective zones in Berlin. Stalin cut the overland routes on June 24, 1948. He reasoned that the US, UK and France would not go to war over access to Berlin. Their failure to do so would show the German population and Europeans that the US would not defend them in a crunch. This, Stalin hoped, would convince Germans and Europeans to reflect on whether they wished to follow the American model of political and economic development.
The Allies found a creative response. Faced with trying to fight their way into Berlin over land or giving up, they instead mounted an extraordinary airlift until May 12, 1949, to supply their sectors of Berlin until Stalin accepted defeat and re-opened the access routes. In doing so, they called Stalin’s bluff while minimizing the risk of war. They also achieved exactly the reverse of what Stalin wanted: Washington’s resolve in the face of Stalin’s clumsy bullying cemented German and European public opinion behind the US and kick-started what would soon become the creation of the NATO alliance and the new West German state.
While this experience is not an exact analogy for today, there are instructive elements. Putin is concerned that, one by one, the former Soviet allies and republics have sought futures beyond Russian control. Putin believes that this has serious security, economic and prestige implications for Russia and must be stopped.
His objective is to show Ukraine, the most important of the former Soviet Republics, and the others, that they cannot escape Russian influence and dominance. The list of Russian diplomatic demands to end the crisis seeks to show them that the US and Europe will not fight for them if it comes to it. The circumstances are different from Berlin in many ways. Still, Putin’s objective of intimidating smaller nations and showing that the West will not stand up to Russian military force is much the same as Stalin’s was.
But Putin is playing a weak hand aggressively. Aside from his military power, his economic, political and social power are weak. The Russian economy is in dire shape. With a population of some 144 million, it is smaller than that of Canada, with 38 million. Incredibly, life expectancy for adults was declining even before COVID made it worse. Simply put, the Russian model is not one anybody aspires to follow.
While the military threat posed by Russia is serious, the fact that Putin relies crudely on it to achieve his aims is a sign of weakness. Like Stalin, he has only clumsy bullying to resort to.
As happened in Berlin, the West’s response needs to play to our strengths, not Russia’s. Putin’s vulnerabilities are economic, political and social. Making clear that the consequences of his threats to Ukraine will be on those levels, and will be significant, is the right policy.
But this will not be cost-free and may take time, just as the Berlin airlift took many months. It will require a much greater degree of allied cohesion than Putin believes is possible. He counts on individual Western nations and others to blanch at the prospect of the short-term damage to their own economies, which really tough sanctions against Russia will require, and quail at the prospect that the crisis may escalate.
Moreover, today’s threats and dangers are not the same as those of the 1940s. Asymmetrical warfare and cyber threats are real and serious tools at Russia’s disposal that were not at Stalin’s. But Putin needs to be convinced that he is not the only one who has these capabilities. Hence US and Western threats to massively support a Ukrainian insurgency that will tie Russian forces down. The West also has significant cyber capabilities, and a sharp dose of them may be required to show Putin that he will suffer too if he takes the conflict goes there.
This could get quite ugly, and some will want to seek a way out which gives Putin something in return for quiet. That would be a mistake. While opportunities must be afforded Putin to avail himself of face-saving “off-ramps” from his policy, outright giving in is another matter and will only spawn further rounds of bullying down the road.job circular 2022
Main image from Radio Free Europe (CC)